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Former Slaves and Free Blacks in Canada West: Using Early American Newspapers to Trace the Circulation of a Slave Narrative

Eleanor Bird

PhD Student, University of Sheffield, UK

Between 1830 and the eve of the American Civil War, approximately 40,000 former slaves and free blacks fled the United States for Canada, especially to Canada West (that is, modern-day Ontario).[i] Slavery in Canada West had been in decline since the late eighteenth century, and slavery in the British colonies was officially abolished by an act of British Parliament which took effect in 1834. The number of fugitives travelling into Canada peaked after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 since this law made it far easier for runaways in the Northern United States to be returned to their former masters. It is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans entered Canada from 1850 to 1860.[ii]

Until recently critics have ignored the Canadian-dimension of slave narratives, despite the fact that there are more than ten nineteenth-century book-length slave narratives with portions set in Canada West.[iii] Some of these narratives were printed and circulated in the United States, and others in Britain and Canada West. These texts include, for example, Benjamin Drew’s The Refugee or The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856), Samuel Ringgold Ward's Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada and England (1855), Josiah Henson’s The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as narrated by himself (1849) and Richard Warren’s Narrative of the Life and Sufferings of Rev Richard Warren (A Fugitive Slave) (1856).

In addition to depicting American slavery, these stories presented the Canadian landscape and the lives of former slaves to readers through a middle-class lens. They describe the homes, occupations, and land owned by former slaves as an indication of their hardworking temperament and reputable character. In these texts, scenes of hunting and of carving homes from wilderness attest to a curiosity and enjoyment in picturing the Canadian landscape. This aspect of slave narratives has been overlooked. It is not listed as a conventional element by James Olney in his classic outline of common aspects of the genre, reflecting the fact that many antebellum slave narratives have a teleological structure which ends at the moment the first-person slave narrator reaches freedom.[iv]

As a search in the Readex database of Early American Newspapers indicates, the Canadian dimension of such works was widely known enough by contemporaries to appear in lesser-known newspaper slave narratives such as “The Weems Family” which was printed in Frederick DouglassPaper in February 1856 (Frederick DouglassPaper Rochester, NY, 1 February 1856, p1 and p2).[v] The second half of this fictionalized slave narrative plays out in two locations in Canada West: an unspecified location D., and Chatham. Here we meet Mr. Brown, a former slave, upon a horse—a sign of his social status—and we witness him and his wife being reunited with their niece Ann Maria, a runaway slave. The theme of revelation and discovery is echoed through the positive and emotional reactions of the Browns upon meeting their niece and also through the theme of cross-dressing. Ann Maria disguises herself as a boy to evade recapture in the Northern United States. The ease with which she publicly reveals her own female identity in a boarding house in Chatham, by entering first dressed as a boy and then re-entering in female clothing to applause from the company gathered there, represents the freedom and safety she can expect to enjoy in Canada West, as imagined in that narrative.

Frederick Douglass recognized the symbolic importance of representing the former slaves and free blacks who by the late 1850s had resettled in Canada West. In his own paper he commented that this gave the opportunity to counter negative representations of them elsewhere, particularly of free blacks in New York, stereotyped as “lazy negroes” and  to represent black men outside of a system of servitude (“The Colored People of Canada” in Frederick DouglassPaper: Rochester, NY, 13 Nov 1857, p2). His paper reprinted accounts of the fugitive slaves in Canada West from the New York Tribune. The book-length slave narratives about former slaves in Canada West were published in the context of much coverage about them in the newspaper press.

One slave narrative with a particularly large portion set in Canada West is Austin Steward’s Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman: Embracing a Correspondence of several years, while president of the Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West, which went into four editions (1856/7; 1859; 1861; and 1867).[vi] In fact, its title alone suggests that the portion about former slaves in Canada West is a particular selling point for this narrative. Austin Steward was the president of the Wilberforce Colony in Wilberforce, Ontario, an organized free African American community in the 1830s—the first one of its type in Canada.[vii] By the time Steward published his narrative, the ill-fated nature of that settlement was well-known. It had dissolved due to internal factions, poor leadership, and the embezzlement of its funds by some of its fundraisers. In addition to deploying conventional elements of the slave narrative, such as a confrontation with a violent overseer, horrors of plantation life, and an escape story, the first-person slave narrator of Steward’s work relates his life in freedom; this occupies the dominant portion of the narrative, which includes lengthy portions set in Canada West that recount Steward’s involvement with the Wilberforce settlement.

One way to find out more about slave narratives with portions set in Canada West, as well as information about their readers and circulation, is through advertisements and reviews in historical newspapers. Keyword searching the Readex database of Early American Newspapers, Series 1-10, offers a very good and quick way to make new findings about such slave narratives and their consumption. This method can also help to identify those specific newspapers that can be most effectively explored by reading a succession of issues cover to cover. Using information obtained this way, it is possible to trace the probable circulation of Steward’s narrative.

The first advertisement appealing for subscribers for Steward’s narrative, a method used to scope out readers and financially fund a text prior to publication, appears in 1856 in a local paper published in Canandaigua, New York, where Steward lived and was active in the anti-slavery crusade throughout the 1850s (Ontario Republican Times, Canandaigua, New York, 8 May 1856, p5, New York State Library). The advertisement describes Steward’s narrative as “a leaf in the history of slavery” (p5). Next in 1857 the New York Tribune mentions his book in its regular “Books Received” list (New York Tribune, New York, 16 May 1857, p7). Searching each issue of the paper printed in May 1857 failed to yield any reviews or advertisements of any kind for Steward’s narrative. Perhaps it was reviewed or advertised in the weekly edition of the New York Tribune not accessible in this database.[viii] The hits for Steward in the New York Tribune suggest he was particularly active at antislavery events in New York City around the time that the first edition of his narrative was mentioned by that paper. A notice appearing in the New York Tribune’s religious notices section indicates that he attended an anti-slavery service alongside Frederick Douglass and the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet where they spoke on the subject of ‘‘The Word and the Wrath of God against Slavery’’ (16 May 1857 p1, New York Tribune). This may indicate why his narrative was seen as worthy of note in the ‘‘Books Received’’ list, despite there being no paid for advertisement for it in the paper that month.

Two advertisements published in the Boston press reveal that Steward personally took his narrative to that city in 1859, attempting to expand circulation into a well-primed market for anti-slavery texts.[ix]

This advertisement from the Boston Evening Transcript shows that Steward had taken favorable reviews from Western New York papers with him. It confirms that his narrative had previously been predominately circulated in these markets. It also speaks to the importance of print as having an authority to authenticate, frame, and introduce black literary productions akin to the white-authored reviews and testimonials that commonly preface the opening of book-length slave narratives.[x] There is no evidence for Steward’s text circulating beyond these two well-established markets for anti-slavery texts. More primary research is needed to ascertain whether it circulated in Canada West and Britain. In comparison to international figures such as Frederick Douglass, who had his own newspaper at his disposal to advertise his own 1855 narrative, for example, Steward’s local connections and professional relationships seem to have dictated the circulation of his text.

These advertisements are interesting from a literary perspective in how they ask readers to approach slave narratives as well as how they introduce and frame Steward’s text. The notice in the Boston Evening Transcript, 14 October 1859, p2, positions Steward as an anti-slavery veteran who has spent much of his life in “active labour.” It plays on his fragility and old age to construct him as a charitable recipient. In this context, buying his narrative is less about reading and more about thanking and aiding an elderly man. Steward’s role in manufacturing such an image is unknown, but, as Graham Russell Hodges notes, he had $1000 in property according to the 1861 census.[xi] This shows he was not a poor man like the notice suggests, and it indicates Steward’s possible complicity and co-creation in this image.

The fourth edition of Steward’s narrative was published in Canandaigua “by the author” in 1867, after the American Civil War and just two years before the author’s death. Steward’s story had a commodity value. It is mere speculation, but perhaps he had it reprinted at this moment of declining personal health to utilize its commercial value in providing for the dependents he would leave behind. Its publication in 1867 also demonstrates the resilience of Steward’s story after the Civil War, reflecting a desire to (re) read an account of one man’s life as a free black man and the discrimination and exploitation faced by former slaves in Canada West. The images of the Canadian wilderness and of free blacks in new societies were an integral part of Steward’s narrative and continued to give his text new life and potency even after Emancipation had been achieved. In its first review in 1856, Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman could be described as a “history” of slavery of the early colonization efforts; yet by 1867 Steward’s text, having outlived another historical phase, was still seen as meaningful for early Reconstruction-era readers.

In its depiction of the former slaves in Canada West, Steward’s narrative is transnational in theme. But, as contemporary advertisements in Early American Newspapers suggest, it is also local in its relatively modest circulation within both well-known American anti-slavery markets and in its use of locations connected to the author as settings. It is hoped that with nuanced archive-based research, using databases such as Early American Newspapers, a fuller picture of slave narratives with portions set in Canada West and circulating in multiple transatlantic and transnational contexts will come to light.


[i] Peter C. Ripley ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers: Canada, Vol. 2 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986) pp 3-46, p 3.

[ii] Fred Landon, “The Negro Migration to Canada after the Passing of the Fugitive Slave Act,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 5, No.1 (Jan 1920) pp22-36, p22.

[iii] This is in addition to the many more in which the slave narrator speaks from a place of safety and freedom in Canada but focuses on recounting his or her experience of American slavery rather than describing Canada West. Most of those with portions set in Canada West are included in what is still the best bibliographical introduction to what some critics have termed Canadian slave narratives (of former American slaves): George Elliott Clarke’s “This is no hearsay”: Reading the Canadian Slave Narratives’ in Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), pp19-30, p22. A comprehensive overview of many of these texts can be found in Clarke’s chapter, as well as in Winfried Siemerling, ‘Slave Narratives and Hemispheric Studies’ in The Oxford Handbook of The African American Slave Narrative (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) pp344-361, especially pp351-7.

[iv] James Olney ‘‘‘I Was Born’’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature’ in The Slaves Narrative ed. by Charles T Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp148-174, pp152-3.

[v] “The Weems Family” is not a first person autobiographical slave narrative, but a fictionalized slave narrative written by a lady in Brooklyn and told from the perspective of narrative voices which do not belong to the former enslaved Weems family. It is described as an “Interesting Narrative” twice in Douglass’s paper, underscoring its connection to the genre and evoking literary antecedents such as Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative.

[vi] Steward’s narrative has been seen as likely to have been written by him. In his critical introduction Graham Russell Hodges notes, based on the evidence of his manuscript letters, it is likely Steward had an editor to ‘‘clean up his prose.’’ See “Introduction,” Austin Steward Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman ed. by Graham Russell Hodges (Syracuse University Press, 2002), ppxi-xxxii, pxxvii.

[vii] The best modern scholarly editions and introductions to Steward’s narrative are, Austin Steward Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman ed. by., Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease (Dover: New York, 2004) and Austin Steward Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman ed. by Graham Russell Hodges (Syracuse University Press, 2002). They offer the best biographical introduction to Steward and his anti-slavery activities. Neither examines contemporary reviews of his text or its circulation in detail.

[viii] It is likely Steward’s narrative was advertised in Frederick DouglassPaper (Rochester: NY). The pair attended events together in 1857, and Douglass occasionally mentioned Steward in his paper. There are no such advertisements in the issues of Douglass’ paper in the Readex collection 1856-1858, but this is likely because there are very few issues held for these years.

[ix] As William L. Andrews summarizes “most [antebellum] slave narratives were published in Boston, New York, London and Philadelphia, big cities where the antislavery movement was well organized and publishers and printers were readily available” in William L Andrews “Introduction” in Slave Narratives After Slavery ed. by William L. Andrews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) ppvii-xxxii, px.

[x] Authenticating documents and white-authored prefatory material are one aspect of white sponsors’ ‘‘envelopes’’ which mediated and sealed the black voices or ‘‘message’' of the slave narrative according to John Sekora’s classic conception, see John Sekora “Black Message/ White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative” Callaloo No. 32 Summer 1987 pp412-515.

[xi] Graham Russell Hodges, ‘Introduction’ Twenty-Two Years a Slave and Forty Years a Freeman pxxviii.

Ellie Bird is a collaborative doctoral student with the British Library based in the Department of English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Her work explores slave narratives through the lens of the Canadian experience and involves archive-based research using early Canadian newspapers.

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